Taking a toddler to the museum: Why bother?

Tempted to skip visiting museums until your toddler is older? Museum fellow Sarah Erdman explains why she's taking her son to museums now.

When my son was a year old, he saw a cow in "real life" for the first time. He's seen plenty in books, both photographs and cartoon drawings, but in suburban Virginia there just aren't that many cows hanging out. At the farm, he walked right up to that cow, pointed at it, and said "MOO!" That was incredible for me—the cow certainly looked similar to the ones in his books but the size and context were all different. Despite that, his brain was able to say, "That is a cow, just like in my books."

 

Ace exploring a farm on a sunny day
Ace exploring a farm on a sunny day

So, what does seeing a cow have to do with taking a toddler to a museum? For me, it neatly encapsulates why visiting museums is so important for him, and also proof positive that he is getting something out of it. He needs to see things "for real" and not just in his books. His brain is ready to absorb these concepts and has the ability to make meaningful connections.

Along with farm animals, my son is obsessed with anything that has wheels. One of his favorite books to read is Freight Train by Donald Crewes. He can pick out trains in his books and he loves to make the "choo choo" noise. However, like cows, freight trains are in short supply in our neighborhood. That's where the museum comes in. I can take him down to America on the Move and he can see a train in "real life." Suddenly, the pictures in his book have context, they have size, they have texture, color, lights, and noise—a train means something to him in a very different way than it did when it was just in his book.

 

Ace getting a good view of the transportation exhibition from his favorite angle—the floor
Ace getting a good view of the transportation exhibition from his favorite angle—the floor

The museum is a place where I can expose him to things that he doesn't see in his daily life. For right now, that means concrete objects like trains, ice skates, and ball gowns. However, it will lead to him understanding that there are some things we can see in the museum that don't exist at all anymore. Eventually, he will use these visits to build his understanding of history, not just the concrete and literal world around him.

At the museum, my toddler's love of trains might expand to other interesting objects, such as this Conestoga Wagon
At the museum, my toddler's love of trains might expand to other interesting objects, such as this Conestoga Wagon

So, yes, I have a full blown toddler. His favorite word is "no" and when he doesn't get his way he will squat down wherever he is and wail in frustration. He can't read yet or fully grasp the story behind what he is seeing. He can only last about 30 minutes before needing a snack and then another 30 before he is really done. If he loses his cool in the exhibition, it is loud and unpleasant for all involved.

However, taking him to the museum is worth it for both of us. In the museum, he gets a chance to experience things and people and ideas that I can't give him at home. He builds connections between the things he knows and these different things he is seeing, and one more foundation block for future learning is clicked into place for him.

Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about the best things to pack for a museum trip with kids and how to handle tough topics in museum exhibitions with kids.

Posted at 11:40 am EST in Musings,Teaching & Learning